SACRAMENTO — As clean slates go, this isn’t half bad.
After three years of inner turmoil, bad basketball and the kind of organizational dysfunction that made the Sacramento Kings the laughingstock of the league under owner Vivek Ranadive, they are hitting the reset button. There’s a new, $556 million downtown arena that has fast become a point of pride in this city that came so close to losing its only major professional sports team. There are signs of progress, a sense of synergy between the humbled owner, the rebuilt front office and a new coaching staff that was nowhere to be found before.
But as Ranadive, the 59-year-old Kings chairman who made his fortune digitizing Wall Street, begins discussing the future in the marvelous Golden 1 Center that never would have been built if he didn’t spend $54.5 million to become the lead owner in 2013, this much becomes clear: he has a few things to get off his chest first. Ranadive is nothing if not independent, and so he goes against the wishes of his associates on hand and reaches for the rewind button.
“In the NBA, really the premium is on harmony, on having the front office, the coaching staff, everybody on the same page,” he says. “Of course I hired a coach before I hired a GM…”
And so it begins.
Only he knows the motivation, whether it’s a form of professional therapy or a simple case of trying to set the record straight. But in these three years in which the Kings have gone 90-156 while changing coaches three times and general managers once, few NBA figures have sparked more unflattering national headlines than Ranadive. Locally, his descent from sports savior to public piñata was unfathomably fast.
The themes have been a constant, accusations of meddling and mismanagement that he deems unfair and mostly inaccurate. And so, just as the Kings are trying to turn a new leaf, Ranadive is turning back time.
Before he is done, Ranadive will touch on nearly every controversy that left his name besmirched.
- The backwards hiring process in those initial days when he added the coach (Michael Malone) before the general manager (Pete D’Alessandro) and set the stage for so much discord (he admits it was a mistake and adds “they hated each other’s guts,” as well as “they tried to fire (Malone) right from the get-go, and I was peacemaker”).
- The story about him suggesting the Kings play four-on-five defense as a way of improving the offense that he calls “patently untrue.”
- The mysterious disappearance of former executive Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the former All-Star and Kings player who is now Associate Vice President of basketball operations for the NBA. Amid rising tensions with D’Alessandro after the 2013-14 season, and after differences of opinion relating to that summer’s draft, Abdur-Rahim was paid the final two and a half years of his contract only after threat of a civil lawsuit for hostile work environment was raised by his representation.
- The infamous draft in 2014 that offered a first look at Ranadive’s style, with ESPN’s cameras inside their “war room” captured the celebration of Nik Stauskas at No. 8 and the heavily-involved owner shouting “Nik rocks!” (he now says he wanted Elfrid Payton and was supporting the Stauskas pick at the best of the front office).
- The night of Nov. 9 2015, when he brought rap artist/Kentucky fan Drake into the Kings locker room where DeMarcus Cousins had just finished a profanity-laced rant at then-coach George Karl after a loss to the San Antonio Spurs (Drake, Ranadive said, was there mostly to support Cousins and insisted on saying hello).
- The frayed relationship between Cousins and Karl that led to yet another coaching change (“George had tried to trade Cousins that whole summer, and there was not a lot of love between those two”).
- The behind-the-scenes uprising from minority owners last season, when frustration levels were so high that chatter of a possible coup persisted (“Nobody has ever come to me and said anything to me,” he said. “In fact, they’re very happy about their investment.”).
All of these subplots are unique to Sacramento, but the lessons learned are not. For all the pomp and perks of NBA ownership, the experience has humbled many a businessman like Ranadive before. The skill set and personality traits that may have served them so well in one sector don’t always translate to the NBA world, and so we see these sorts of self-inflicted PR wounds along the way.
Golden State’s Joe Lacob, who Ranadive learned from during his time as a minority owner with the Warriors, has been down a similar road. Ditto for the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Robert Pera, to name a few.
Add in the fact that Ranadive came in touting his “NBA 3.0” plan as if he was about to reinvent James Naismith’s wheel, and the eye rolling that he so often inspired was even more pronounced. Much of the internal resentment came from those who felt his level of influence outweighed the magnitude of his investment, as Ranadive – like many NBA owners whose percentages of ownership would surprise the masses – runs the show with a 15.08% share. The bottom line of NBA ownership, however, is that the majority owner has the first and last say on any and all matters.
“I grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai, India), and there were people starving on the streets,” Ranadive said when asked about the near-constant criticism. “And sure, it’s not fun being skewered in the press, especially with things that are not true. But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s a huge privilege and a huge honor to be able to own a team.”
Ranadive says that the speed of the learning curve overwhelmed him. The constant confusion has been a hallmark of the Kings’ recent years, with agents, rival executives, Kings minority owners and even prospective free agents never quite sure who to call or who was calling the shots.
Yet this new arena is some kind of wonderful for Ranadive, like one of those memory erasers from “Men in Black” that you wave around when the ugly truths are getting in the way. From the unprecedented indoor-outdoor feature (massive windows that will let in nighttime air during some games) to the cutting edge technology (100% solar energy power, individualized cooling systems; wicked fast wi-fi etc.), civic value (improving a previously-downtrodden downtown area) and the platinum status as the most environmentally-conscious arena in the country, it is a sight to behold.
There’s a video screen the size of a mansion, 6,100 square feet of 4k digital goodness that makes it the largest in the NBA. Near the main entrance – six miles from where the Kings spent recent years putting lipstick on the dilapidated pig last known as Sleep Train Arena that was built in 1988 – there’s an $8 million, 18-foot tall piece of art named “Piglet” from renowned artist Jeff Koons. The debut basketball game may take place tonight in a preseason affair against Maccabi Haifa, but Paul McCartney threw the real tipoff party last weekend with a pair of sold-out three-hour shows.
The ability to provide instant results with a checkbook, Ranadive jokes, are a fun change of pace when compared to the maddening process of building a winning team.
“(With the arena), you can just decide that I’m going to spend the money and decide that I’m going to put a 4k scoreboard in, and write a check, and I have the world’s greatest scoreboard,” Ranadive said. “You can’t do that with wins with the team.”
This is a city re-energized, with positivity coming Ranadive’s way again. But he has had honeymoons here before, and knows full well that this second one won’t last unless the on-court product improves.
What matters is his message, and the question going forward of whether or not he’ll live up to it. For now, and going forward, Ranadive swears that this structure will hold true: Divac and the recently-added Ken Catanella (assistant general manager) will make the final basketball decisions in the front office without fear of a Ranadive veto, among them what to do with Cousins (who has this season and next on his contract) and small forward Rudy Gay (who has made it quite clear to the Kings that he’s unhappy in Sacramento). New coach Dave Joerger (formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies) will head up the on-court product with a focus on defense and team-wide unity that they believe was missing before.
“I’ve spent more time with this coach than I did with the previous coaches combined,” Ranadive says.
Team president Chris Granger will head up the business side, while Matina Kolokotronis – whose under-the-radar influence on basketball matters has been seen as a mysterious gray area by league executives and agents in recent years – was recently named Chief Operating Officer. And as is the case across the NBA, where the league’s structure gives the final say on all matters to the team’s chairman, the minority owners will have to hope in silence that these claims of improvement are real.
The slate is clean again. Only time will tell what kind of Kings picture gets painted from here.
“It’s a very hard process, and a hard journey, but I have zero regrets,” Ranadive said. “We created thousands of jobs in the city (with the arena). We’ve kept everything local. We’re investing a billion dollars here (between the arena and the downtown area), and the vast majority of that is staying in the city itself.
“Where we are today, I’m very excited. We have a coach and a GM and a front office and a coaching staff who all have kind of the all-for-one-one-for-all mindset. We actually have a lot of talent, young guys and older guys, so Vlade has a portfolio of talent with which to keep building … Obviously there have been different parts of the journey that have been less fun, but look, I’ll never forget that at the end of the day it’s a huge privilege to be able to own the team, and I’m humbled by that.”